‘There is no alternative’

Tony Wood writes about Russia on the eve of the presidential election

In the closing weeks of 2011, the wave of protest that had spread to dozens of cities since the start of the year – from Tunis to Cairo, Madrid to Athens, New York to Oakland – reached some unlikely places. On 10 December, as many as sixty thousand people turned out in Moscow to demonstrate against the falsification of parliamentary election results the previous week; five thousand took to the streets in St Petersburg, while at least three thousand braved temperatures of -20°C in Novosibirsk. Elsewhere in Russia, the crowds were smaller, ranging from hundreds to a few thousand, but the geographical spread was striking: from Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok in the far east, via Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg in the Urals, Volgograd and Voronezh in the south, the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Irkutsk, even Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the Arctic.

Further demonstrations were held the following weekend, and a fortnight later, on 24 December, an even larger gathering took place on Moscow’s Sakharov Prospekt, drawing a crowd of perhaps eighty thousand. Politicians, activists, intellectuals, journalists and musicians spoke out against electoral fraud and the corruption of the regime that perpetrated it, especially the ruling United Russia party, the ‘party of crooks and thieves’. Over the next few weeks, the focus of dissent shifted increasingly to Putin. In September he had announced he would again be running for the presidency on 4 March 2012. With the length of the mandate now extended to six years, and Putin eligible for two more consecutive terms, he could conceivably remain in office until 2024. This would make his tenure at the summit of power longer than Brezhnev’s, a prospect that caused some protesters to carry placards with a Time cover from 2007 digitally reworked to show an elderly Putin in 2050, NYET! written firmly across the top. One of the rallying cries of the demonstrations held on 4 February – attended by upwards of sixty thousand people in sub-freezing temperatures in Moscow, at least ten thousand in St Petersburg and hundreds more in other cities – was for a ‘Russia without Putin’.

This seems a distant goal: even if Putin is denied a victory in the first round of voting on 4 March, he will remain the overwhelming favourite to win a second. According to a survey conducted between 20 and 23 January by the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency, he has a thirty-point lead over his presidential rivals; if one leaves out those saying they don’t plan to vote, his score rises to 63 per cent, nearly fifty points ahead of the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. Nevertheless, the resurgence of public protest in Russia has been surprising, given the widely remarked political passivity of the country’s population and the crushing predictability of its elections over the last decade. In any other year, the sudden appearance of so many Russians expressing their fervent dislike of the authorities would have seemed outlandish. But after Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street and the Puerta del Sol, protest is becoming a normal feature of the global political landscape, in which the Russian crowds seem like a belated, wintry addition. It’s no doubt true that Zuccotti Park, Syntagma Square and the like set encouraging examples to Russia’s demonstrators: ironically, state TV had over the past year beamed images of disorder in the West into the country’s living rooms, intending to draw a smug contrast with their own officials’ handling of the economic downturn. There are clear resemblances in terms of ideological breadth and organisational methods: in Russia and elsewhere, communists, liberals and greens have rubbed shoulders with anarchists, social democrats, monarchists and nationalists. Many of them have been summoned through Twitter, and blogs and online forums have played their now customary role as sources of information and discussion.

There are further echoes of 2011’s other mobilisations in the tone and aesthetic sensibility of the Russian protests: the anger is laced with irony, and alongside party flags there have been many homemade banners and placards bearing visual and verbal puns. One proclaimed, ‘I didn’t vote for these bastards’ next to the logo of United Russia, continuing: ‘I voted for some other bastards,’ alongside the symbols of the other main parties. Many protesters played on the ambiguity of the Russian word for ‘vote’, golos, which also means ‘voice’, and put tape over their mouths, writing across it ‘nyet golosa’ – ‘I have no voice/vote.’ An anarchist banner in St Petersburg carried a potent double meaning addressed to Russia’s elite: ‘Vy nas dazhe ne predstavliaete,’ which means both ‘You don’t even represent us’ and ‘You can’t even imagine us.’

But as well as the Arab Spring and Occupy, important parallels lie closer to home. For the authorities especially, the protests resemble nothing so much as the ‘colour revolutions’ that toppled governments elsewhere in the former Soviet Union following disputed elections: Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004-5, Kyrgyzstan in 2005. In the Kremlin, these events were seen as the handiwork of CIA stooges, part of a civilian encirclement of Russia to accompany the enlargement of Nato. Putin’s response was to pass a law in 2006 making it difficult for NGOs to operate in Russia if they received funding from overseas. He initially tried to blame the December protests on Hillary Clinton, suggesting on national television that the demonstrators were in the pay of foreign powers. What this ignored, of course, was that the actual trigger for the upsurges was his own party’s widespread electoral fraud.

The official results of the 4 December polls were bad enough for United Russia: its share of the vote dropped from 64 per cent to below the symbolic 50 per cent threshold. But it rapidly became clear that there were serious irregularities in the vote counts. In Chechnya – where Russia has fought two vicious wars since 1994, killing as much as 10 per cent of the population – United Russia won 99.5 per cent of the vote on a 98.6 per cent turnout. Elsewhere there were mathematical miracles: when state TV showed the results from Rostov-on-Don, the combined shares of all the parties came to 146 per cent. The anomalies conformed to particular patterns. United Russia gained a strikingly large proportion of its votes – perhaps a fifth – in districts with abnormally high turnouts, and there were clear spikes in the party’s vote in districts reporting turnouts at suspiciously round percentages – exactly 75 per cent, 80 per cent, 85 per cent, compared to an official national average of 59.7 per cent.

The full extent of the fraud is still subject to debate. It seems to have taken many forms: exclusion of opposition voters from polling stations; manipulation of electoral rolls to include dead or fictional people; ‘hired’ voters casting their ballots in several different districts, with United Russia laying on buses. But the most widespread form of fraud seems to have been simple fiddling of totals. The uncanny roundness of many turnout figures has led some analysts to suggest that electoral officials were padding United Russia’s score rather as Soviet industrial bosses used to meet plan targets. After counting up all the votes, they would see how far turnout fell short of the target, then add that number of votes to the ruling party’s total.

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[1] Dvizhenie po spirali: politicheskaia sistema Rossii v riadu drugikh politicheskikh sistem (Ves Mir, 2010).

[2] I.B. Tauris, 338 pp., £20, March, 978 1 78076 016 2.

[3] Aleksei Navalnyi: Groza zhulikov i vorov, edited by Konstantin Voronkov (Eksmo, 224 pp., 246 roubles, February, 978 5 699 53227 8).

[4] Masha Gessen’s The Man without a Face, to be published on 1 March, may produce further revelations.